Copy Edits We Have Known and Hated, Part 1

- by Laura Resnick

rrr1(Adapted from Rejection, Romance, & Royalties: The Wacky World of a Working Writer)

A copy editor’s job is to correct errors in grammar, spelling, usage, consistency, and continuity, and to ensure that a writer’s manuscript adheres to the publishing house’s standard style choices in terms of spelling and punctuation. 

Obviously, this is an important function, a necessary part of the editing process. And I will be fair (just this once) and admit that throughout my career, most of my copy edits have been good—or least inoffensive enough that I don’t really remember them.

 Indeed, the unmemorable copy edit is the ideal experience. A good copy editor uses a light touch, rather than heavily stamping the prose with her own voice. A good copy editor discovers and alerts you to the occasional small mistake, inconsistency, or even embarrassment that has been missed in all the previous edits and revisions of a manuscript. Since a good copy editor is so valuable (and, alas, so rare), authors sometimes request the same copy editor for all their books once they find a good one. A few authors even manage to get their preferred copy editors guaranteed in their book contracts.

 However, a good copy editor—or even an inoffensive one—is like the relatives who send you a Christmas or Hanukkah card once a year and otherwise leave you alone; you forget all about how inoffensive they are when you’re mired deep in primal rage over the relatives who never bring back the car they borrowed without asking—unless they suddenly return without warning one day because they’ve decided to move into your basement.

 Perhaps the most volatile reaction to a copy edit that I ever saw was that of my father, science fiction writer Mike Resnick. He wrote a novel in which the narrative describes one character, a leprechaun, as having an Irish accent. The copy editor went through the entire manuscript and changed every single word the character spoke which ended in ing to in’. Showin’ a surprisin’ streak of practicality, Pop went out and had a “stet” stamp made at the local print shop, rather than writin’ stet (“let it stand”) a thousand times. And when he sent the heavily stetted manuscript back to the publishers, he warned them that if  they didn’t make these (stet) changes, he would fly to New York and rip their hearts out of their chests.

 This would be a good example of why I am considered the nice Resnick. I usually just threaten to hurt editors badly. It’s a rare editor who incites me to threats of actual homicide. But I digress.

 A manuscript written by novelist Lisa Ann Verge fell into the hands of a similarly compulsive copy editor who added ellipses to the end of “every single damn sentence of dialogue,” Lisa says…for three hundred fifty pages…(Lisa should have borrowed Pop’s stet stamp…) Indeed, there seem to be so many copy editors with a punctuation compulsion that someone should really consider starting a Twelve-Step program for them. Bestseller Jo Beverley’s worst copy editing experience was with “the obsessive semi-colon person,” a copy editor who added semi-colons to prose the way Bill Gates adds dollars to his net worth. Jo stetted thirty pages before giving up in exhaustion and phoned her editor about the problem. And fair warning: beware; it seems that this copy editor may still be migrating around the industry; you could be next.

 I myself was once victimized by a compulsive comma lover in my seventh book, Celestial Bodies (written as Laura Leone). On virtually every page of the manuscript, phrases like “he sat in his favorite thinking chair” were changed to “he sat in his favorite, thinking chair.” (I should, have borrowed, my dad’s stet, stamp.)

 Although the copy editor is expected to make little changes, some copy editors are evidently unaware that the little changes are meant to be (hullo!) corrections. In Alice Duncan’s historical romance, Heaven’s Promise (written as Rachel Wilson), the copy editor changed “footpad” to “footpath.” Alice says, “I don’t know anyone who’s ever been attacked by a footpath, but I don’t read much horror.”

 It’s those little changes that can really get you if you don’t carefully read every single damn word of your copy edit—particularly when you’ve been assigned a copy editor whose first language doesn’t seem to be English. In another book of mine, the copy editor changed a description of horses as “animals born to a herd mentality,” which is a pretty standard phrase, to “animals born to a herd mentally.” In Celestial Bodies (again), the copy editor changed “There was a sign in the window: Help Wanted” to “There was a sign in the window: help wanted.” (I’m not making this up.) Failure to correct copy editor changes like these can convince your friends and family that your good education was completely wasted on you.

 The bigger changes, however, are the truly infuriating ones. I don’t know if some copy editors are frustrated aspiring writers or just cruel tormentors who enjoy elevating other people’s blood pressure. And more than a few copy editors seem to be remarkably incompetent amateur historians.

 In my next blog here, we’ll explore some of examples of this.

6 comments

  1. Oh, yes. Hence the “Stet Happens” buttons we made up for sale at SFWA Emergency Medical Fund events. Hence my newest sword’s name (“Stet!”) Bad copy editors are so busy re-writing the book that they miss the very errors they were hired to find. On one ms. I had over a thousand STETs, and still found a typo or two the copy editor had missed. (She didn’t like my style or my topic, and had made snide remarks about me in the margin and on the style sheet. I did complain to my editor about her.)

    One problem for fiction writers, especially in fantasy, historical, and SF, is that “house style”–appropriate for contemporary books–may be inappropriate for specific fiction projects. I had to fight hard to retain the ampersand in a commercial name in one series (the ampersand is part of the logo, as it is in some corporations now.) We may be moving to gender-neutral terminology, but you don’t “staff” the weapons on a ship or spaceship in combat: “manned” is the right term.

  2. Elizabeth, There are two more (upcoming) parts to this blog, and your bad experiences (as you will see in Part II and Part III) are, alas, not unique!

    LauraR

  3. Laura, you really need to pull your head out of your proverbial and know that an equal number of travesties are caused by arrogant writers refusing the advice of editors, then being slammed by critics for sloppiness, or worse, poor editing. And please don’t justify your stand with, “we are the creators”. I have seen too many books reworked BY THE EDITOR – in ‘conjunction’ with the author: re-working plot, and yes, uncovering historical absurdities (“Oh, but it’s fiction!!”). Many authors don’t know where to stick a comma or understand that it conveys meaning.
    I tell you what everyone, if you’re interested in becoming a copy-editor or a book editor – DON’T! And if you already are, think about how you can use your valuable skills in corporate communications and publishing, magazine publishing or PR where you’ll be paid several times as much.

  4. “Not an Editor, BUT” — never before has one been so aptly named. New to the exciting and mysterious world of punctuation?

    Right on, Laura! If you ever find the store carrying those chairs that think, please let me know. I think they’d look great in my kids’ bedrooms.

    CSL

  5. Excellent article, so true to form. Every editor and author should read this and not trust blindly to the copy editing process.

    It’s effectively the quality control stage of the book manufacturing process. Tragically I’ve known many instances, as a writer, where the editor doesn’t even read the changes made – to the point where they make a mockery of the English language and the author’s intent. As a copy editor I can also tell you one of the prime reasons for bad copy edits is poor briefing and lack of care.

    For example, one brief I received from a publisher: “I don’t care what you write just make sure there’s plenty of blue ink on the page.”

    Yikes!

    RE ‘Not an Editor, BUT says’ post, I think you’re missing the point here. An author might work on a piece of historical fiction for two years, but a copy editor can work on it for two days or two weeks – it is their job to catch mistakes, not introduce more.

    I’ve also worked in corporate comms and can tell you, as an author/writer. it’s also a lot easier than working with ineffective copy editors/editors, at least there if you have to waste hours, days or weeks with clients who don’t know what they are doing and you can charge by the hour.

    But then you don’t have the creative freedom to write about what interests you.

    Do both.

  6. Now how do I copy edit that last post!